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City, The (Part I)

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City, The (Part I)

Published 1939

The Regional Planning Association of America's plea for community chaotic cities and urban sprawl. Directors: Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke. Script: Henwar Rodakiewicz, from an outline by Pare Lorentz. Commentary written by Lewis Mumford. Narrator: Morris Carnovsky. Photography: Ralph Steiner, Willard Van Dyke, Jules V.D. Bucher, Edward Anhalt, Roger Barlow and Rudolph Bretz. Editor: Theodore Lawrence. Music: Aaron Copland.

Run time 15:48
Producer American Documentary Films, Inc.
Sponsor American Institute of Planners, through Civic Films, Inc.
Audio/Visual Sd, B&W


Contents. A plea for community planning, which contrasts the awesome conditions of human living in a modern industrial city with (1) the serenity of life in an eighteenth-century New England village and (2) the architect's and engineer's concept of the model community, as typified by the federal government's resettlement experiment at Greenbelt, Maryland, and the privately developed one at Radburn, New Jersey.
Life in the New England village of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is described. There are slowly unfolding views of an old water wheel, a covered bridge, the swimming hole, and other scenes characteristic of the period. A town meeting is shown in session; the speaker at the meeting talks of the village way of life and his remarks are illustrated by views of people at simple handicraft tasks.
The transition to the modern industrial city is made by the merging of a shower of sparks from the smithy's forge with those from a Bessemer converter in a modern steel mill. The scenes change to smokestacks against the sky, to molten slag flowing down the dump, and to the miserable company houses. Children walk along the crude wooden sidewalks. One child narrowly escapes death when he and his companions run across a railroad track in front of a train. A woman pumps water a few feet from an outdoor toilet, hangs the washing in a smoke-filled atmosphere, and shovels coal into an outmoded kitchen stove. Such symbols of industrialism as smokestacks, locomotives, and steam shovels are shown as the musical tempo is accelerated and the commentator echoes the phrases "better and better" and "faster and faster."
Now attention is turned to the great metropolis, New York. Dwarfed by the skyscrapers, human beings mill through city streets, push out of subways, and squeeze through seemingly endless lines of mid-town traffic. The music works up to a screech symbolic of the nervous tension and speed of life in the metropolitan business center. An office scene of long rows of girls at typewriters is accompanied by a chorus of dictationÑmechanical and impersonal. The environment in which children live and play is depicted by scenes of a street accident in which an ambulance takes away the victim, of boys who play stick ball in the street, steal rides on trucks and streetcars, rummage through garbage, and dive from a dock for a swim in a dirty river.
At the lunch hour people gulp coffee and eat sandwiches in an atmosphere of confusionÑsandwiches are slapped together, toast bounces out of a toaster, and pancakes pour automatically on an automatic griddle. Workers return to work through streams of traffic. Long lines of people wait at clinics and dispensaries. At the end of the day the crowds begin to pour out of buildings and start home. Crowds of pedestrians, a traffic jam, traffic officers, traffic signals, together with a shrill, wrenching musical score, create a sense of confusion and tension.
Then comes Sunday. The business district is deserted, but on the highway cars move in a constant stream. Caught in a traffic jam a driver sits and waits. A family picnics on the roadside as the traffic whizzes by. Cars crash bumpers; a car plunges over a cliff.
The next section of the film is the architect's and engineer's solution to the problem. Scenes of Boulder Dam, power lines, research laboratories, airplanes, and streamlined trains convey the impression that science in modern society can provide a way to better living. Modern highway designs are shown as new developments in beauty and safety. There is an aerial view of a well-patterned community which the commentator calls "a green city" built away from crowded metropolitan conditions. In a modern factory employees are shown in a leisurely conducted dining room. Employees walk happily to homes of modern design with adequate lawn space. Recreation facilities are symbolized with views of horseback riding, bicycling, softball games, swimming, gardening, and fishing. An electric stove and an electric washing machine show that much of the drudgery has been taken from housework. The community newspaper comes off the press and is delivered to the front porch. Shopping is done at a modern market; the vegetables, the commentator explains, come from nearby farms. Families leave "the green city" by automobiles for recreation at the golf course, the swimming pool, the skating rink, and the ocean beach. A concert platform, a medical clinic, and a school are shown as parts of the community facilities. Views contrasting "model" housing with crowded tenements, and children playing in large playgrounds with children playing in the dirty street are accompanied by the statement, "Take your choice." Scenes of "cities in which people are always getting ready to live . . ." are followed by scenes of the life that the picture suggests is possible in "a green city."

Appraisal. Very good for (1) contrasting New England village life in the late eighteenth century with modern metropolitan life, (2) suggesting the undesirable urban living conditions produced by industrialization, and (3) indicating the achievement of a more satisfactory life through resettlement of metropolitan populations in planned suburban communities. Should be useful in giving an understanding of (1) some of the human problems associated with the change from a predominantly agrarian to an industrial society and (2) the part science and engineering may play in restoring an environment favorable to good living.
The film deals in a dramatic way with an important social problem. Bold photographic contrasts and powerful commentary and music emotionalize the problems. It should be recognized that the film's presentation of the problems and their solutions is oversimplified.
Photography and sound are excellent.

Ken Smith sez: Directed by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke (who later went on to craft Choosing For Happiness), and with a score by Aaron Copland, this is probably the closest thing to pure social propaganda ever produced in the U.S. The New England town of colonial times is depicted as a kind of Shangri-la, where there was "balance." Contemporary life, on the other hand, is depicted as dirty, noisy and confusing, as we are shown dead trees and muddy children in Pittsburgh and Homestead, Pennsylvania; slum kids and frantic hustle-bustle in midtown Manhattan; and hopeless summer weekend congestion on Rt. 35 in New Jersey. Happily, "the age of rebuilding is here," and as the film concludes we are whisked away to a New Deal "green city" of tomorrow (Greenbelt, Maryland), complete with happy white people and a laundromat. "Here, science serves the worker," the narrator proclaims. "Just watch us grow. The scales won't hold us soon!" Wasn't that the problem in the first place?

Â¥ 8:56:57:21- 8:57:41:15
Good series of shorter shots of factory town. Images of smoke pillars dissolve into more smoke stacks billowing smoke which then moves into pan across river to various angles of dark, dusty town.

Â¥ 8:57:41:28- 8:58:00:03
A continuation of the previous shot.
Medium close ups of impoverished homes with smoke stacks in the background. Quick pan across the densely packed homes.

Â¥ 8:58:00:08- 8:58:08:14
People ascending wooden steps between houses with smoke stacks in the background. Documentation of squalid living conditions in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a steel town near Pittsburgh.

Â¥ 8:58:08:18- 8:58:19:01
Shot of back of dilapidated homes with mud running through the back yards which cuts to street with similar homes on a hill, crowded streets, and dozens of smoke stacks in the distance.

Â¥ 8:58:43:07- 8:58:59:14
Great image of children running to the railroad tracks which cuts to a train racing forward.

Â¥ 9:04:10:21- 9:04:38:12
Quick, extremely low angle shots of city sky srapers which ends with a pan down a sky scraper to see people walking along the busy sidewalk. Nice fast-paced cuts.

Â¥ 9:06:04:19- 9:06:29:00
Series of short shots of city children playing in the streets of the ghetto. Some make go carts, others collect things from the trash, some hang onto the back of the moving garbage trucks, and others make fires on the dark, back streets.

Â¥ 9:10:20:22- 9:10:33:02
Good image of extremely crowded city streets. Urban crowd scene.

Â¥ 9:12:30:10- 9:12:47:18
Starts with 1930s cars moving along a highway and cuts to images of the houses and billboards that separate the houses from the highway and moves into more images of the strange billboard ads and safety tips along the highway (one is a wooden, grinning painted police officer with the words "Death Corner, Drive Carefully" beneath him). Good fast pace.

Â¥ 9:13:24:20-
Good shot of the wooden police officer which cuts to a roadside ad for beer and sanwichesÑa tall, wooden figure leans against a telephone poll and carries a "BEER" sign.

Â¥ 9:15:15:26- 9:15:23:08
Camera pans over factory to show the distance between factory and residential neighborhoods.

Â¥ 9:16:08:26- 9:16:22:21
Clean children move towards the camera on bicyclesÑin the background is their suburban school. They ride along paths through their new planned community (Greenbelt, Maryland). Final overhead view of bicycles approaching well-kept homes.

Danger Lurks


Reviewer: Marysz - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - April 2, 2006
Subject: Lewis Mumford's Utopian City
A fascinating film made at the end of the Depression that illustrates the populist, utopian principles of its writer, Lewis Mumford. Mumford, an influential social critic at the time, saw cities as ultimately de-humanizingbut he had faith (as the film shows) in the redemptive powers of technology. In hindsight, we can see the limitations of his ideas. The new cities that Mumford writes about are what we would today call suburbs Judging by the film, Mumfords ideas, populist as they are, don't seem to include racial diversity. The new cities also seem to have the same rigid gender roles as the old city; in fact, they reinforce them. As a woman at a primitive washing machine stirs laundry with a stick, the narrator says, Machines needn't break a woman's back; indeed, they can take it and the wife needn't feel cooped up and lonely on washing day. A little gossip or a friendly hand is good for the complexion! Looking at the desolate city scenes in the beginning of the film, its easy to see why people like Mumford would think that abandoning the city center would lead to better lives for working people. Ironically, Mumfords principles were taken to heart after World War II by real estate developers who saw such communities as a way to profit from the veterans who could buy houses with loan guarantees on the GI Bill. Mum-ford's utopian ideas met with a very capitalist end.
Reviewer: ERD - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - March 8, 2006
Subject: Brilliant!
"The City" is one of the best films in the Prelinger collection. It makes points about social change and responsibility brilliantly.
Reviewer: seetheoceanblue - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - May 15, 2005
Subject: Superb, the Copland soundtrack makes it
This is without doubt the best of these films I've seen on here. It's pre cheesey-propaganda 50's (even though I love those films too) and very poignant. The Aaron Copland music is set perfectly with the footage.
Reviewer: cashel - favorite - August 23, 2004
Subject: we got boredom
These new housing developments were so sterile. Everything was new, so clean and so boring. Generally an auto was necessary and people became lethargic. Neighbors were usually only glimpsed as they walked to the carport. Each house became a small fortress equipped with a barking dog or alarm system that would irritate at ungodly hours. The only visible activity was macho man cutting his lawns, often at times to irritate. Alcohol and drug taking boomed. The kids were frustrated and used vandalism and unsocial activities to express their feelings.
Reviewer: Christine Hennig - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - November 30, 2003
Subject: Urban Planning Rids the World of Poverty!
This classic New Deal public service film of the 30s contrasts city slums with ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂplanned communitiesÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ such as Green Belt, Maryland. It does this in a very arty fashion, with skillfully edited montages of urban problems backed with a glaring, yet compelling, soundtrack by Aaron Copeland. Ultimately, it doesnÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂt really make its point very well, because it ignores the economic, social, and political problems that result in urban slums, attributing them entirely to planning failures. But it is a fascinating, historically valuable montage of life in the 30s, covering urban life, automation, roadside woes, and even fast food. My favorite scene is a bizarre montage of automated diner equipment and people eating at a frenetic pace. This is the sort of film that is ripe for mining for footage for a video project.
Ratings: Camp/Humor Value: ***. Weirdness: ****. Historical Interest: *****. Overall Rating: ****.
Reviewer: La'Farrah - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - November 24, 2003
Subject: La'Farrah's Review of The City
Viewing The City in black and white was very interesting because the colors made the footage look old in age. After watching this footage I was able to realize that an enhancement as been made in today's urban life. In the footage there were many examples of labor work being demonstrated. For example, there was an old man turning the nozzle on machinery in the middle of the neighborhood's street. In today's urban life there is no possibility that a driver would be able to ride through an urban neighborhood and observe an individual working on machinery. The usage of technology has illuminated urban life by creating new computer machinery, where humans can make a command on a computer by pressing one button. The footage was narrated in an interesting manner. Every visual displayed matched the description of the narrator. I highly recommend individuals to watch the archival footage The City because the viewer would definitely be satisfied with observation of the enhancement of urban life.
Reviewer: Spuzz - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - April 28, 2003
Subject: Good City/Bad City
In this appeal to razing down neighborhood slums, the plea to build new cities, and get rid of the ghettos is emphasized. Strikingly visual for such a messaged film, the narration is pretty sparse, sticking with visuals of the city ala Baraka and Koyaanisquatsi. What I like about this film is again the visuals, treating petty items such as road signs into work of art, and it's salute to the car is very masterful as well. What I didn't like, I didn't really think the narration needed to be there, I would be perfectly happy with just the visuals alone, rather then the somewhat stilted narrative. Still, I think this is a reccomended film. Turn down the volume during the narration, and then turn it back up again when the (excellent) music starts up again.
Reviewer: pablo_altes - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - March 18, 2003
Subject: Echoes from Vertov's "Man with a movie Camera"
Excellent cinema piece. By many aspects, could be an american answer to Dziga Vertov's classic.

Very "leftist" spoken commentary in my opinion, critizing Big Profit companies who deny human living conditions to the workers they exploit.

The music is particularly good.
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